Jessica Smith has been out of work as a server at Buddy’s Diner in Eugene since March 7. She’s been trying to navigate the state’s overwhelmed unemployment world. But when she talked with Eugene Weekly, the checks weren’t near to what she was receiving when working.
When Smith’s April rent was due, she didn’t ask the property manager at her Springfield apartment complex about holding off payment because she was hopeful that her federal stimulus check would come in time.
Although Gov. Kate Brown enacted an eviction moratorium March 23, Smith says her landlord still posted a 72-hour eviction notice on her door and mailed another copy.
When Smith told her sister about the eviction notice, her sister told her to call the Springfield Eugene Tenant Association. So she did.
“I was unaware that she was not supposed to be putting those evictions out,” Smith says of her landlord.
Smith says she thinks her apartment complex’s property manager sent eviction notices out because the manager knew the federal government was giving out the stimulus checks that week — and that the manager also knew the governor put a moratorium on nonpayment evictions.
After talking with SETA and learning about her rights as a tenant, she says that the property manager should’ve just called her since sending eviction threat notices just added to her stress.
But Smith’s not completely free of worrying about future rent payments. She says what she gets from the state’s unemployment insurance doesn’t come near to covering her rent and other living costs. Although she had a roommate move in, she says her future in Oregon is uncertain. It’s likely that she’ll leave for Las Vegas, where her son lives.
Smith isn’t alone in her experience being threatened with eviction due to nonpayment. In Springfield, many undocumented residents fled their homes after seeing a 72-hour notice eviction posted on their doors. A local activist who’s helping them find housing says it’s exposed the need for more Spanish-speaking people at social service nonprofits.
Local tenants throughout Eugene-Springfield are concerned about their housing, too. The tenant rights nonprofit SETA has seen its call volume nearly double during the pandemic and is asking Lane County government to implement more pro-renter policies. And now there’s a movement starting to “cancel rent” and build more community in neighborhoods through groups like Lane County Mutual Aid and Eugene Strike.
Calls for Help
In Oregon, like the rest of the U.S., the Latinx community has been vulnerable to COVID-19. The Oregon Health Authority reports that the rate of coronavirus illness in the state’s Hispanic population continues to grow at a high rate: 14.3 cases per 10,000 residents, while non-Hispanics test positive at 4.5 cases.
It’s not just the COVID-19 virus that’s hitting Latinx populations hard — the economy is, too.
An organizer for Community Alliance of Lane County’s Springfield Alliance for Equality and Respect social justice program, Johanis Tadeo, is finding undocumented immigrants places to live after they left their homes because their landlords posted 72-hour eviction notices on their door. He’s doing it with the help of the Eugene-Springfield community.
“They left because they thought the cops were going to come,” Tadeo says. “Due to the fact that some of these folks don’t have status, they packed their stuff up and left because they didn’t know where or who to contact.”
He adds that many in the Latinx community have had traumatic experiences with the police.
During the month of April, Tadeo and other community members worked to find temporary housing for 35 people after they lost their jobs from the economic shutdown.
“The unfortunate piece is that I get contacted after,” he says. “Talking with Legal Aid, once these folks turn in the keys, it makes it a lot harder to fight. When I let some of these families know that, they were devastated.”
Although the tenants legally forfeited their housing, Tadeo says some landlords worked with tenants to allow them to return, signing contracts saying they’ll pay the rent back when they get the money.
Tadeo and some community members were able to find some families temporary rent-free housing in mobile home park homes with spare rooms.
“We asked the community, and made sure those folks are good folks,” he says. “We traditionally try to find someone who’s bilingual or who’s worked with us in the past.”
He says Social Security numbers are needed for some housing applications. And applying for temporary housing has a huge waitlist, so the fastest way to get immediate housing is through a good neighbor.
He says some families were split up, with their children living in a mobile home across the street from where the parents live.
But Tadeo says he and other community members were unable to find housing for 12 families, four of which had children.
“Last time we talked to them, we were going to give them tents,” he says. “We came back to give them propane but they were gone.”
Tadeo says that he and the community are trying to find temporary housing for a 25-year-old single mother and her two children: a 2 month old and 2 year old. She lost her housekeeping job right when the state started imposing social distancing measures.
“That was a stable job for her,” he says. “She’s still looking for work, as well as a babysitter for her baby.”
He adds that the woman had some money saved, but she had to decide either to spend it on temporary shelter or food. She went with food and that’s when she reached out to Tadeo about where to find housing.
Tadeo has had some help in informing the Latinx population about their options in Springfield. A grassroots group called Escudo Latino has emerged as an information source, inviting local leaders to its weekday radio program at 2 pm on 97.3 FM and on Facebook to talk updates on COVID-19, tenant rights during the pandemic, how to access local resources like food banks and more.
But Tadeo says the city needs to create more bilingual access for the Latinx population.
“The city as a whole needs to be more efficient for some of these communities to be informed of where the nearest shelter place is,” he says, adding the need for a physical place to seek information on getting resources like food.
And he says he heard from the ousted families he worked with that they didn’t have a good experience with housing and relief nonprofits in the area. He was told that social services nonprofits in the area haven’t had ample Spanish-speaking staff.
“Having the fear of that rejection and having the impact on your kids, you’d rather not take the risk and apply,” he says about Spanish-speaking applicants trying to apply for social services in the area where there isn’t a lot of bilingual staff.
Fighting for Tenant Rights
When Smith was dealing with her eviction notice for nonpayment, she called Springfield Eugene Tenant Association for resources on how to deal with it. She was one of many who have called the nonprofit, which started serving tenants in the area in 2019.
Since the pandemic began, SETA has been active in advocating for tenant rights. Days before the governor’s moratorium, SETA wrote a letter to the Lane County Board of County Commissioners asking for the county to enact a moratorium, a 6-month repayment plan, an emergency fund for low-income tenants and more.
“In the wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic we recognize that many people who were already one paycheck away from not being able to pay their bills will no longer be able to do so due to loss of income,” the nonprofit wrote.
Days later, though, Brown enacted Executive Order 20-11, a 90-day moratorium on rent evictions. It’s since been extended to end in early July and makes it a misdemeanor if a landlord gives a tenant a 72-hour notice of eviction due to nonpayment. But the order doesn’t offer any assistance for those who need to pay back rent.
Brown prohibited law enforcement from serving nonpayment evictions, but not for just cause, which could be whether the tenant did something like violate a lease agreement.
According to records obtained from the Lane County Sheriff’s Office, deputies have still been enforcing just-cause evictions. Since the governor enacted her moratorium, Lane County deputies have forcibly removed tenants twice and sent two eviction notices.
SETA’s director of hotline services, Joshua Caraco, says if tenants receive an eviction notice, they should tell their landlord about the moratorium and maybe also contact a lawyer. He says that SETA does help tenants calling the hotline find a lawyer if needed.
Unemployment data collected by SETA shows that out of the 18,987 Lane County residents who filed for unemployment insurance, one in four worked in the accommodation and food service sector. The median hourly wage of those individuals is nearly $12.50.
Compared to the pre-COVID-19 days, Caraco says calls to the tenant rights nonprofit in general have doubled.
“We have seen an increase in calls related to evictions, though most do not include actual notices, some do,” Caraco tells EW in an email. “Many calls involve threats of eviction, others are simply from callers worried about paying rent. We have also received a lot of calls from students or their parents interested in breaking their leases and feeling very trapped.”
Caraco sent a hotline summary report to EW from March 15 to May 5. The report says that SETA has received about 90 calls during that period, putting stress on the unfunded, volunteer-run organization. The nonprofit saw an increase in calls from tenants wanting to deny landlord entry during the pandemic, resulting in one caller being served a 30-day notice of lease termination if a problem wasn’t solved in two weeks.
SETA sent a report to the Lane County Board of County Commissioners, urging that policies be enacted to help mitigate the bleak economic future. The report says that unemployment insurance is a best-case scenario for many workers. Many of those who are still working are in the lowest-earning sectors and aren’t receiving hazard pay or benefits. When social measures phase out, leading to the gradual opening of the economy, many residents won’t have a job to return to or will have reduced hours and smaller paychecks.
The tenants rights nonprofit offered the county commissioners five recommendations: a 6-month rent payment grace period, no rent or security deposit increases, rent assistance, credit protection and early lease termination by tenants.
“We outline repayment periods and additional rent assistance because of the systemic inequality that will make it incredibly hard for so many renters in our community who were already low-income to ever save enough to pay,” Caraco says.
Looking to the Future
Utility poles in Eugene are usually filled with flyers for upcoming concerts. For a while as Lane County shut down, they were empty, but there has been an increase of flyers stapled to poles, telling people to keep their rent and that if you can pay rent don’t because many neighbors can’t.
“We are safer together,” the flyer from Eugene Rent Strike reads.
Eugene Rent Strike is one of many localized efforts to cancel rent and mortgage payments in an economy with historical unemployment rates.
Rent Strike emailed EW a collection of letters that property managements throughout the Eugene-Springfield area sent to tenants, asking for rent money whenever the stimulus money would come or raising rent.
In the letters, the property management companies acknowledge the pandemic and offer accommodations for tenants who reach out — but still remind tenants that rent is still due, especially if their employment hasn’t been impacted by COVID-19.
May 1, also known as International Workers’ Day, is a holiday used to celebrate labor and the working class. So on that day, Lane County Mutual Aid took to the streets to safely distribute bread and roses to 100 homes throughout Eugene.
The action, according to the group, was to echo the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where immigrant textile workers went on strike for living wages.
The Lane County Mutual Aid group supports Eugene Rent Strike. The goal of the strike is to highlight residents’ inability to pay rent or mortgages during the COVID-19-caused economic meltdown.
Organizer Avery Temple, who’s associated with Eugene Rent Strike and Lane County Mutual Aid, says more needs to be done to assist people with rent and mortgage payments. She says that pushing Brown to get more money for everyday people is one goal because the government needs to do more to help everyone during the pandemic.
“We don’t think people can pay their bills with the stimulus check,” she says. “This economic crisis and pandemic isn’t the people’s fault, and the way it’s been handled by the government has been inadequate, to say the least.”
Temple says another goal is not to just connect people with nonprofits that can help pay for bills but also to build neighborhood alliances.
“The economy won’t turnaround overnight,” she says.
She recommends creating neighborhood mutual aid “pods” where neighbors can help each other out and feel connected during the pandemic. Such relationships can help build a political movement to cancel rent and mortgage payments but also so neighbors can know each other’s struggles with bills and assist if needed.
And, most importantly for those like Smith or the Latinx families who left their homes, neighborhood pods can help inform neighbors of their rights as a tenant, direct them toward the proper resources and avoid making hasty moves if handed a threat of eviction during a governor-imposed moratorium.
Learn more about Escudo Latino and listen to past radio interviews on its Facebook page. The SETA hotline is 541-972-3715. For more information about Lane Mutual Aid, visit LaneMutualAid.org or call the hotline at 541-321-8749.